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Tea Tasting Guide: How to Improve Your Palate

I’ve offered some tasting recommendations and guidelines for a beginner and an enthusiast. Before recommending more advanced tastings for tea connoisseurs, I thought it best to speak a little about the specifics of tea tasting. After all, how can one appreciate more nuanced tastings without the know-how to do so?

This guide is intended primarily to help one transition from a tea beginner or enthusiast to a tea connoisseur. It is perfect for anyone interested in improving their tasting palates.

Description is the Skill at the Heart of Tasting

As a kind of meditation, take a moment to look at a Jackson Pollock painting, such as Convergence. What do you see?

Notice that you can focus on form or content, paying attention to shapes and patterns or colors and textures.

In either case, your ability to appreciate what you see is limited by your ability to describe.

If we look at the colors, for example, we could describe what we see as “white, yellow, red, and black,” or we can describe it as “a mélange of butter and daffodil juxtaposed by alabaster and ebony with splashes of crimson and cobalt.”

Which description does the painting justice? Which description invites us into a richer experience?

I think you’ll agree with me that the latter description is superior. Some might initially think it sounds superficial, but I want to suggest to you that this isn’t a matter of being pretentious; this is a matter of capturing the essence of our experiences.

Knowledge and language help us more precisely pick out the fine-grained qualities within our experiences, and thereby, enable us to have a fuller experience.

Where Do I Start?

I love tasting wheels. They challenge me to pay more attention to what I am tasting and they help me pick out exactly what those flavors and aromas are. The International Tea Masters Association (ITMA) provides an excellent and helpful tea aroma wheel that is free to download and I would highly recommend getting acquainted with it:

   

This is just one version of a tasting wheel, and there are others that you can use as well. While there are some differences, the most important things are (a) to have one and (b) to know how to use it.

When using a tasting wheel, you always want to start from the center and work your way outwards. The middle features very broad categories, like “floral,” “spicy,” or “earthy,” and once you pinpoint one of those aromas or flavors, you can then move to the second-level of the wheel, narrowing your aroma or flavor down further until you stop at a more precise aroma or flavor on the third-level of the wheel.

Do not feel confined to the tasting wheel.

Use it to help you grow as a taster, but do not feel dependent on it. I recently described a tea, accurately, as tasting like “Honey Smacks.”

A very important part of tasting is having fun and getting inventive.

What Am I Doing?

When it comes to tea tasting, you want to imagine the tasting occurring “vertically” and “horizontally,” and you want to keep in mind that much of this involves your nose and sense of smell. This means you want to remember to breathe, especially through the nose, paying attention to the aromas with your inhales and exhales as you sip.  

What I mean by “vertical” tasting is trying to pull apart the different aromas or flavors during a particular sample. I will walk you through the four different things to try to notice.

Note: Do not fret about doing it all, all at once. Let your tasting ability develop and mature, gradually improving a day at a time. Just focus on one aspect at a time until it becomes habit. 

Vertical Tasting

Aroma

Begin by trying to identify your “top notes,” which are the first flavors or aromas to greet you as soon as you taste the tea.

Next, with the tea still resting in your mouth, try to identify the flavors or aromas that persist and seem to typify the tea. These are your “heart notes.” It helps to relax your jaw and form a space where the tea can rest.

Finally, bring your attention to the “aftertaste,” especially focusing on how long it lingers. A good tea usually has a pleasant aftertaste that lingers for quite a while. These notes are your “bottom notes.”

There is no need to overwhelm yourself by trying to pick out every single flavor. Instead, just challenge yourself to pick out three flavors total, one for each kind of note.

Taste

Remember that we have five primary groups of taste buds, organized into sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami (or savory). Try to figure out how the tea fits into any of these categories.

For example, Japanese Green Tea like Gyokuro has a tendency to be very strong on umami while Anxi Oolongs like Tieguanyin have a tendency to be bitter like fine chocolate (not bitter like medicine).

Texture

Be sure that you engage with tactile sensations as well. Notice how the tea first feels when it enters your mouth, how it feels when it rests there, and how it feels when you swallow it.

Does the tea have a “hot,” “cold,” or “dry” quality to it? This is not a reference to temperature. Think in terms of peppery sensations (hot), minty sensations (cold), or astringent sensations (dry). Is it velvety and thick like cream or butter? Might it be thin like water? Is it crisp or smooth?

Texture presents itself to us in a variety of ways, and when we become more familiar with it, it definitely adds some excitement to our tasting experience.

Color

Finally, I cannot neglect color. Professional chefs believe that tasting begins with the eyes, and I believe this to be true as well with tea.

I derive so much excitement when I look at the color of the dry leaves, observe the changes in color after I pour water over them, and finally when I observe the color of the resulting brew.

Every tea is its own pleasant sight to behold. While there are some exceptions, such as pu-erhs, in general, you want to at least make sure the tea has clarity to it.

Horizontal Tasting

Lastly, it is important when tasting tea to recognize that not only does the first steep have its own flavor profile, but every steep of the same tea can present to us new aromas and flavors.

When a tea has been placed in the hands of an expert artisan, they know how to roast and fire teas with such skill, that every steeping unveils new and exciting flavors.

Horizontal tasting challenges us to try to appreciate that the “taste” of the tea is not in any single steep, but it is the whole range of steepings; it is everything that the tea has to offer you throughout its “life.” Similarly, our own “life” is not in any single moment, but it is the whole range of our experiences; it is everything that we have to offer and experience throughout our lives.
August 16, 2016

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The Enthusiast's Tea Tasting Guide (part 2 of 3)

In the previous entry, we looked at why we should be tasting tea and discussed how a beginner might want to proceed. I suggested that the best way for someone new to the world of artisanal tea is to taste by type.

But what if you already know what to expect from tea types?

This is exactly the problem that I sometimes have when I attend tea tasting sessions. I usually go to one, hoping to try a tea that I haven’t had yet, but more often than not, they almost always seem to be aimed at the beginners. And so there I find myself, tasting matcha, dragonwell, and tieguanyin…again. 

The good news is that we can arrange tastings for those with more seasoned palates, even for the connoisseurs.

Dedicated to the Seasoned Tea Enthusiasts

So you understand the difference in flavor between your white tea, green tea, and black tea. What now?

You might want to consider trying to coordinate a tea tasting using the same type from a different region. When it comes to a tea’s flavor profile, like wine, it’s all about “terroir.”

Terroir is a fancy catch-all term for every environmental factor that influences the look and taste of the final tea product. This includes factors like overall temperature, changes in temperature, altitude, rain (or lack thereof), presence of other kinds of plants and trees, quality and kind of soil, etc.  

We have expectations about the climate when we go to the beach and those expectations are different from when we visit the mountains. Similarly, teas “live” in wildly different environments, and so each tea has its own “personality” that is suited to that environment. 

A tea tasting by region aims to help us appreciate the contributions of terroir in making each tea what it is.

Now, there are many different regions and there are many teas within those regions. So, the important goal of a tea tasting by region is simply to gather a handful of samples from a handful of regions.

The Enthusiast’s Tasting Flight

With that in mind, an Enthusiast’s Tasting Flight should focus on the same tea type, selecting a representative from three to five different regions. As an example, I would recommend something like the following for oolong tea:

I like starting with oolongs because I believe there to be the greatest and most easily discernible differences in taste from region to region. Even though the Tie Guan Yin and the Shui Xian come from the same province, the terroir is very different between Anxi County and Wuyi Mountain, and Phoenix Mountain oolongs are in a world of their own as well.  

Alternatively, there is also the Oolong Sampler, which comes with 12 grams of each of four oolongs: two from Phoenix Mountain (Dan Cong Wu Ye as well as Dan Cong Mi Lan Xiang or “Honey Orchid”), a different grade of the Anxi Tie Guan Yin, and a Wuyi tea known as Qi Lan (Rare Orchid).

But keep in mind that you can do this kind of tasting with any tea type!

Here is another example of a tasting by region with green teas:

     

In general, Japanese green teas are very different from Chinese green teas, often accentuating more vegetal or grassy notes. Therefore, it’s always a good idea to include at least one when you are relatively new to Enthusiast Tasting Flights.

With the final post in this series, I want to explore flights that are best suited for the connoisseur and those ready to take their tasting to the next level. Before I discuss that, however, it will be important to talk a little about tea tasting in a more technical sense so that one can best appreciate the experience. Stay tuned!

Friendly Reminder: For those of you in the Washington, DC area, don’t forget to check out MeiMei Fine Teas’ newly announced tasting classes for August 2016 (or contact info@meimeitea.com)!

August 09, 2016

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The Beginner's Tea Tasting Guide (part 1 of 3)

If you’re anything like me, your tea adventure may have started with the “Chai Latté.” It was the first tea that I can remember tasting appreciably different from all of the bagged teas I had tried. While I enjoyed the spiciness, some days I found myself feeling bored with the flavor, and so curiosity and a desire to experiment eventually pushed me to try loose leaf teas.

The preparation at the time was similar: heat some milk, add a strainer of loose leaf tea, drop in some sugar, and stir. This worked best with maltier teas, like dark roasted oolongs or black teas. While it was a suitable substitute for the chai latté, I started feeling like I was missing out on what the tea itself had to offer.

Could there be more to the flavor of tea than I had realized?       

When one first turns to the world of artisanal, loose leaf teas, the first thing you notice is the price. “Could this possibly be worth it? I can pay the same for 8,000 bagged teas.” While the difference in cost isn’t as great as it first seems (another post for another day), the difference in flavor is unparalleled. 

Now, some of you might be thinking, “But it all tastes the same to me.”

For those of us that feel this way, this is why I especially recommend tea tasting.  

We best develop our tasting palettes when we experience what foods and beverages have to offer us side-by-side. Clearly, it’s far easier to remember what something tasted like just moments ago than it is to remember its flavor days ago. In addition, side-by-side tastings give us points of reference, making it easier to notice contrasts and draw comparisons.

Here, I’m going to recommend several ways to try your hand at tea tasting.

What is a Tea Tasting?

A tea tasting is where you prepare several different teas all at once so that you have the luxury of sipping them side by side. It’s not too dissimilar from a beer or wine tasting in this respect.   

It is important to brew them using the same methods. So, if you’re going to brew them using a tea strainer, for example, be sure to brew all of your teas with a tea strainer. Likewise, if you are intent on using a teapot, be sure to use a teapot for all of your teas.

Similarly, if you prefer to add sweetener to your teas, try to make sure they are all sweetened similarly. I personally don’t use sweetener in any of my teas, but I did at one time.

Like wine, I think as we grow as tea drinkers, our preferences shift from the “sweet” to the “dry.”

How do I Taste Tea?

Tasting tea can be a relatively simple process or a more involved one. That’s somewhat up to you. At a minimum, pay attention to the following: (1) the aroma of the dry leaves, (2) the aroma of the wet leaves, (3) the color of the resulting brew, and (4) the immediate flavor of the resulting brew.

    

When you become more comfortable with tasting, you will want to involve more of your senses and enhance your tasting techniques. For example, you can pay attention to the aroma of the tea as you exhale through your nose when you drink. You might also want to bring your attention to the texture of the tea while you sip it, whether some flavors are more pronounced as the tea cools down, or observe the clarity of the tea in your cup (note: with the exception of pu-erhs, most high quality teas should produce a relatively clear liquor).

For the Beginners

If you’re brand new
 to the world of loose leaf teas, it’s best to start with tea types. Though there are exceptions (like aged, yellow, and purple teas), in general, there are five types of teas: (1) White Tea, (2) Green Tea, (3) Oolong Tea, (4) Black Tea, and (5) Pu-Erh Tea.   

The Beginner’s Tea Tasting should therefore focus on tasting three to five different teas, selecting a representative from each type. For example, I would recommend a tasting such as the following:

As a convenient alternative, there is also the Ultimate Collection Sampler, which also includes 12-15 grams of each kind of tea except it features the highly prized West Lake Dragonwell in place of the Zhu Ye Qing and it features a different grade of the Anxi Tie Guan Yin, which has more floral notes. 

      

Each of these teas is a distinctive representative of its category, and by tasting them side-by-side, you will easily be able to detect the differences between them. 

Remember: the main purpose of the Beginner’s Tea Tasting isn’t so much to pick out nuanced notes, but it’s to become acquainted with the general qualities of the types of tea and how they differ from one another.

In the next posts in this series, I want to explore other methods of tea tasting for the initiated.

For those of you in the Washington, DC area, don’t forget to check out MeiMei Fine Teas’ newly announced tasting classes for August 2016 (or contact info@meimeitea.com)!

August 03, 2016

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The Secret to Amazing Iced Tea - Cold Brew!

Beat the heat with a great home-made cold brew!  For an amazingly refreshing, full-flavored and healthy iced tea experience, we recommend a cold-brew of our premium Anji Bai Cha green tea!

Why cold brew?

Cold-brewed tea produces a sweeter, smoother and fresher taste since fewer catechins and caffeine are extracted during the cold brew process, thus reducing the bitterness and astringency of the tea. Also, cold brewing tea is a great way to discover new flavors from your old tea! Plus, it takes just a little effort to make a wonderful tea. 

Please note that, although cold brewing can reduce bitterness and caffeine, it also hinders the extraction of beneficial antioxidants that would otherwise have been released with hot brewing. But this can also be achieved by extending the brewing time, resulting in a stronger flavor and the release of higher levels of these nutrients.

Why Anji Bai Cha green tea?

In general, green tea and white tea are two of the better candidates for cold brewing. Both white tea and green tea have a light and refreshing taste. They are more aromatic, refreshing and less astringent than when brewed hot.

Anji Bai Cha is simply one of the best-tasting green teas. It is refreshing and sweet and flavorful, with no bitterness or astringency. As this tea has twice the protein content, about 6.8%, than any other green tea, the taste is naturally fresher. It also helps you to stay calm and focused on a hot day.

       

How to cold brew: Simply pour filtered or spring water over your loose tea, approximately 4 grams or 2 tbsp per 4 ounces of water, and store in the refrigerator for 4-6 hours, or even overnight.  Then simply strain and drink either straight or with ice. The tea leaves/water ratio can, of course, be adjusted to taste.

Add your personal touch:  There are many ways to enjoy this tea cold brewed. Although we find that this premium tea does not necessarily need any other ingredients to enhance its taste, we encourage you to create your own blends, adding natural ingredients such as syrup, honey, berries, cut fruit, etc. Experiment and have fun!

A Princess in the Deep Valley - Tai Pin Hou Kui Green Tea

Tai Pin Hou Kui is one of the top ten most famous Chinese teas, it became world famous when it won the gold prize for teas at the Panama World Expo in 1915. It also won the King of Green Teas at the China International Tea Expo in 2004. It is one of the country’s most prestigious teas and has been used as a national gift tea for several visiting heads of state. Like many other Chinese teas, it is named after its place of origin, the core producing area of Tai Ping district (formerly Tai Ping county), on the north side of Yellow Mountain city, Anhai province, China. 

On my last tea trip to China in April, I visited the famous Tai Pin Hou Kui core tea-producing areas in Tai Ping district (formerly Tai Ping county), in Yellow Mountain city, Anhai province. The landscape and the tea gardens on the hillside are stunning and the making of this prestigious tea is impressive. 

The Legend

Hou means monkey in Chinese. Kui means the best kind. There are two myths associated with this tea. One says that the tea bushes were growing on dangerous cliffs and hillsides that made it too difficult to harvest. The locals trained the monkeys to pick the tea leaves, hence the name Hou Kui. Another version is that a mother monkey was looking for her lost child and died from exhaustion searching for her child in a deep valley. A local old farmer kindly buried the mother monkey along with several tea plants at her grave. The next year when he went to pick the wild tea leaves, he saw the sudden growth of a beautiful tea garden where the mother monkey was buried, from which he harvested the leaves and the tea made from the garden was delicious. To commemorate the mother monkey’s gift, he named the mountain hill as Hou Gang, the valley where he lived as Hou Keng, and the tea as Hou Cha. Since his tea is the best in kind, people started to call it Taiping Hou Kui.

   

A Princess in the Deep Mountains

This is an exceptional tea, in its appearance, its process, and its character.  There is an old Chinese saying that references this tea as “A Princess in the Deep Mountains”. It has incredibly long, flat leaves, which are pointed at the top and the end. Because of this pointed shape, it used to be called Jian Cha during the Qing dynasty, meaning pointed tea.

The Stringent Picking Standard

Tai Ping Hou Kui has the largest sized leaf amongst all green teas. The local cultivar is called Shi Da Cha, a rare varietal that is specifically cultivated for this tea and not used for any other tea products. The tea leaves are big, oval shaped, and thick, yet tender. The picking window is very short, usually around Guyu festival, from mid-April to the end of April. Hand-plucking of the tea leaves stringently follows these four standards: 

  • Only harvest from mountains of high altitude from south-facing hills
  • Select only the Shi Da Cha varietal plant that grows flush and strong
  • Pluck only from thick, well grown branches free of disease
  • Pick stems that have many downy hairs, one bud and two leaves

              

The Production

Taiping Houkui is made using a unique process. The local masters use a deep flat bottom base pan to fry the leaves for a short time. After the pan frying, leaves are laid on a series of bamboo baskets which are heated over a charcoal pot and batches of leaves are moved at various temperatures for three times. Once the roasting is done, tea masters lay out each leaf flat and press them into their distinct pointed shape. This is an important step in shaping and enhancing the flavor of the tea.   

            

The Aroma and Taste

Tai Pin Hou Kui is known for its aromatic orchid fragrance and full bodied sweet taste. A good quality Hou Kui has the signature orchid fragrance, not overly bold, but like a fragrant breeze in a deep valley.

Nowadays, it is difficult to find authentic handmade Taiping Houkui in the core producing area. One way to judge whether the tea is a good quality or not, is to brew it in a tall clear glass. The fully opened leaves will stand up in the water if they are truly handmade and of good quality, while machine made lower quality leaves will not. 

It is best to brew the tea in a tall clear glass in order to observe the amazing leaves opening and dancing in the glass, creating an astonishing view. For a good quality handmade Hou Kui, it can be steeped up to 8 times. The first steeping brings the signature aromatic orchid fragrance. The second steeping brings a full-bodied mellow taste. With the third and fourth steepings, delicate fragrance still remains as does the taste.

 

How Liu An Gua Pian Green Tea Is Made

During my tea trek in April 2016, I had the pleasure of visiting Jinzai county, the core production area of the famous Liu An Sunflower Seeds green tea in Liu An, Anhui province of China. Liu An Gua Pian has very unusual style and character, and has extraordinary production process unlike any other. It's one of the top ten famous Chinese teas and was a tribute tea for centuries.      

I arrived at a traditional Gua Pian producing town. It sits by a lake surrounded by misty mountains. The famous bat cave tea garden that produces the most reputable Gua Pian lies in the high mountains just at the other side of the lake. I sat at a local shop drinking the tea. The locals use a tall glass, 200 degree water, and drink tea directly from the glass. It had an aromatic and rich flavor, just like what I had remembered of a good Gua Pian. I hiked to the villages in the high mountains and picked fresh tea leaves with the farmers. I also visited a manufacturing facility, observing and learning how the great Gua Pian is produced.

              

This tea is named after the production region of Liu An, Anhui province, China. The dry leaves resembles the shape of sunflower seeds, thus the name "Gua Pian". Liu An Gua Pian has three distinguishing traits that set it apart from other green teas. While other green teas incorporate buds and one or two young leaves, only the single mature leaves are plucked for this tea, leaving the buds and stems on the tea plant. Therefore, Gua Pian is not prized for the earlier harvest or tender buds and leaves. On the contrary, the best leaves are picked around Guyu season, in late April when the second and third leaves grow to the preferable size. 
 

The production of the tea is impressive and extraordinary, unlike any other green tea. I was especially amazed at how the tea leaves were processed over a raging fire to become a delicious and rich tea. After the tea leaves are taken out of the firing wok, tea makers place the leaves on a barrel-shaped bamboo basket over an 80-100 degree charcoal fire, slowly baking until the leaves are about 80% dry.  This step is called La Mao Huo, or “the initial firing”, an important step in forming the aroma and taste of the tea. Sometimes this baking step is repeated twice. The last firing step is called La Lao Huo, or “the raging fire”. After the initial firing, the tea leaves are placed on a drum shaped basket that is carried over the charcoal fire for a few seconds and then taken away to cool down for several seconds. This on-and-off fire roasting is repeated more than a hundred times, until the tea leaves have shrunken and are almost completely dry. This last step finishes the tea, creating a beautiful appearance and a rich, deep taste. This is especially hard work and requires years of training and great care, and I noticed that the tea workers’ hands are usually black and burned. 

This tea has a bright and clean green color and a unique flavor profile due to its picking standard, and its firing and roasting process. It provides an intense and crisp floral aroma, a rich complex flavor, and a light vegetal sweetness with no grassiness or bitter aftertaste. A great tea you don’t want to miss!

The King of Puerh Tea Lao Ban Zhang

Greetings from the Lao Ban Zhang village, the home  of the renowned "King of Puerh" tea!  

Victoria's current tea trek has taken her to Bulang Mountain, Yunnan province, where tea has been produced since the late 15th century.  This region is heavily populated with ancient tea treas, some more than 1000 years old, which are interspersed amongst other exotic flora and fauna, as part of a natural mountain jungle. As such, and at an elevation of around 6000 feet, the tea trees thrive in this pristine habitat with no need for pesticides or commercial fertilizers.

See below for some examples of these ancient trees.  Many even require ladders or scaffolding in order to harvest their precious leaves. 

           

Genuine Lao Ban Zhang raw puer tea is highly sought after and can be very expensive. It also has great health benefits, especially as an aid in digestion and for helping to reduce cholesterol and high blood pressure.

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April 14, 2016

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